“Sovereign Lord, as You have promised, You may now dismiss Your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared in the sight of all people;
a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.”

Simeon is one of my favorite characters in the bible.  There is little we know about him, yet much we can infer.

Simeon was tsadik, “a righteous one”.  This title was not just nicety but was a title given to those who most closely followed God’s law, lived with the intention of being righteous above all else.  Jesus’ father Joseph was tsadik until he agreed to marry Mary, that was.  Marrying a pregnant woman lost him the title.  But Simeon was one who lived his life completely for God and His righteousness.

Simeon was most likely Anawim.  The Anawim were the pious poor of Israel, those who awaited the coming of Messiah like no others.  Both Mary and Joseph, along with Elizabeth and Zechariah, were most likely of the Anawim.  These people were most often found around the temple where they worshiped and prayed for the coming Christ.

But Simeon was one more thing.  He was filled with the Holy Spirit.  Big deal, we think, since we are ALL filled with the Holy Spirit.  But at this time, before Christ’s ministry, before Pentecost, being filled with the Holy Spirit was rare.  And rarer still in the centuries since the prophets stopped prophecying.  The Holy Spirit “B.C.” would come upon a person for a God-given task and once the task was complete, would leave them.  Few if any could be said that “the Holy Spirit was on him.”

Through the Spirit, Simeon had been told that he would not die before he saw the Messiah, and here Jesus was.  And so, with the completion of his ministry, Simeon gives us this beautiful hymn, a hymn we’ll look at more closely tomorrow.

Today I’m pondering armies.  Someone has said that nobody should read Joshua until they are adults, and even then only sparingly.  It’s a hard book for us in 21st century America to stomach let alone understand.  It’s the story of warfare, of driving people off their land, of armies.  Another person asked me once, “What’s the difference between what Joshua and the Israelites did in the book of Joshua and what is happening in the Middle East today?”  We decry people groups who would attack another group and drive them out of their land, but our own spiritual ancestors did just that.

How do we deal with our God commanding His people to do such a thing?  How do we worship a God of love who would direct armies to do what armies do – war?

Perhaps the bigger question is about faith, about trust.  Can we trust God even when we don’t have answers?  Can we put our faith in God when we don’t understand?  Can we follow a God who rules armies and conquers lands, even lands promised to His people centuries before?

There’s another army in our reading for today, but it’s in the New Testament and it has a very different role.  We are so familiar with Christmas pageants and carols that we’ve missed an army walking through the very story we recite, some of us from memory, year after year.  It’s because the scriptures don’t call it an army; they call it a host.  “The heavenly host” literally means “the heavenly army”, and they never sing a note; they shout a battle cry.

So what is up with an army appearing in the sky above the shepherds and battle-crying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and good will toward all on whom His favor rests”?  This army is welcoming it’s commander, the one who will ride before it in the last battle.  This army is not there to conquer but to celebrate!

So, God uses armies for lots of reasons, some we understand and some we don’t.  The question is whether we will still follow Him, the God whose armies celebrate and conquer, or whether our own lack of answers will drive us away.

Was John the Baptist Elijah reincarnated?  Obviously not since we don’t believe in that sort of thing, but also because Elijah wasn’t dead.  If you remember his story, he was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot, making him one of only two people assumed to have never died.  The other is Enoch early in Genesis.  It was this fact that he never died that led to the belief that he would return to proclaim the Messiah’s coming.  This belief was so strong that it made its way into both the Seder meal and Jesus’ own teachings.

At the Seder meal, the annual celebration of the Passover Feast through which we celebrate our exodus from Egypt, there is a special place set at every home for Elijah.  He has his own special cup which is not drunk until he returns, and even a portion of the celebration where a child runs to the door to see if Elijah has come this year to proclaim Messiah’s coming.  It is to this that Jesus refers in Matt. 11 when He states, “And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.”

Even Zechariah seemed to make the connection long before John donned his camel-hair robe and began his insect diet.  Here before John’s birth, Zechariah proclaims that he will “go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him…”  This was a direct quote of Mal. 3 which foretold Elijah’s coming.  He recognized that John would be a prophet of the Most High God, which John proved true by acting the prophet, from his life with the Essenes in the desert to his odd dress and cuisine to his message.

And just what the message?  What was it he preached that prepared the way for Jesus to come?  His was a message of repentance, forgiveness, and preparation.  Maybe that’s a good place for us to begin with non Christians when we introduce them to Christ – with repentance and forgiveness and preparation.

“There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the LORD listened to a human being.”

I believe we deeply misunderstand prayer.  We believe and have been taught that prayer is about asking God for things.  We justify this with a few commands in scripture about asking what you want in God’s name and getting it.  But there is exceedingly more example in scripture of seeking God’s will, God’s plan, and praise in prayer than in asking for stuff.  But we are Americans, living in an individualist, capitalist society, and so it makes sense that we would see God as a Djinn, a Genie granting us wishes.  In fact, the most common reason I’ve heard from people for their disbelief is that “God didn’t answer my prayer”.

If prayer indeed is about God answering our requests, “listening to us” in terms of obeying our commands or granting our wishes, then what do we do with a verse like this?  I don’t think we can reconcile it or frankly this whole story, which is a miracle more because God gave Joshua what He asked than that He stopped the sun.  I think our only option is to change our assumption about prayer.

What if prayer was about listening to God’s will rather than trying to change it?  What if prayer was about taking orders rather than giving them?  What if prayer should be more about silence than about words?  Try that for the next week and see if prayer changes for you, and change things for you.

I often have to both teach my kids and remember for myself this simple life rule:  I can’t dictate, change, or control the behaviors of others, only of myself.  I cannot blame someone else for my mistakes, nor can I base my behavior on their actions or worldviews.  This comes up in today’s text as Joshua and the Israelite face off with the deceptive Gibeonites.

Joshua and company could have decided that because the Gibeonites deceived them, they weren’t bound by their oath and were free to kill them.  However, they knew that their oath was their own and regardless of the Gibeonites behavior, they were bound.  And so they found another solution – make the Gibeonites their slaves, fulfilling their vow not to kill them but also making them pay for their deception.

The real problem, however, wasn’t that they made a rash vow.  It was that they made a vow without consulting the Lord.  We all have tricky decision to make and paths to choose in life, and if we choose without prayer and wise Godly counsel, we will almost always choose poorly.  And when we choose poorly, no matter that all the evidence points to the fact that these visitors are from far off, we will have consequences that have nothing to do with others’ deception.

So before you make any major decisions, whether about a life choice, a theological position, or a personal request, take the time to consult God and Godly people first.  Though you may be seen as less than decisive because of your slow process, you will choose correctly only if you choose the way of God.

This world has decided that every disagreement between people has to escalate and end with division.  We’ve lost the art of conversation, overpowering it with the art of debate.  We yell our opinions, take sides, and fight over everything.  While social media by no means began this behavior, it has certainly exacerbated it until the great crime of our times is to not choose a side on every topic.

Currently in the ECC, that topic is homosexuality.  Though it seems to be an old argument as far as the society around us is concerned, for the ECC it is the current issue and threatens to split the denomination in ways that arguments over atonement, baptism, worship styles, and women in ministry didn’t.  As always in our society, the ends of the spectrum of beliefs on this issue are building battlements and shouting insults at the other side, while the majority of people in the middle become collateral damage.

Today’s text has something important to say to those sides.  While Joshua contemplated the battle ahead, God’s chosen people vs. the city of Jericho, he is met by The Lord.  And his first question is the same one we all are asking when we ponder this debate over homosexuality, or any debate within churches.  “God, whose side are you on?  Are you for us or for our enemies?”  Hear the answer from God loud and clear, people.

“Neither.”

Neither?  How can God be on neither side of this debate?  How can God not be won the side of those who follow His laws and obey His word?  How can God not be on the side of those who humbly welcome and love people the rest of the church wants to judge?  How can God be on neither side?

Because God is not on sides and in fact hates the division that “side” language causes.  God is in unity, and humility, and dialogues, and learning, and loving, and obedience, and peace.  To think that God in on one side and yet there are still two sides is to doubt the very power of God.

If you want to be “with God” on this or any other issue, then you need to stop trying to defeat the other side and instead love them, pray for them, listen to them, and allow them to follow God obediently in their own way.   When we can stop trying to control the debate, then we can let God be in control of it.

It is an interesting thing that even today we are dealing with the fact that existent manuscripts of the gospels are different.  Not in important or faith-destroying ways, but different nonetheless.  Today, we find that the earliest manuscripts of Mark end with women leaving the tomb terrified.  No Jesus, no Doubting Thomas, no road to Emmaus.  Just three terrified women running from an empty tomb.

But somewhere along the way, someone added, or found, more of the story.  Jesus, the Resurrected Jesus, appearing to Mary Magdalene, then to the Eleven and scolding them for not believing Mary Magdalene.  Then the Ascension and the disciples’ ministries of signs and wonders.  All of this added on to this odd ending Mark’s earliest manuscripts give us.  Three terrified women running form an empty tomb.

It is an interesting juxtaposition reading this odd ending in Mark and the first chapters of Joshua.  What begins with, “Be strong and courageous as you lead my people into the Promised Land” concludes with three terrified women running from an empty tomb.  So which are you today?  In the midst of all of your doubts and revelations, your calling and your walk with Jesus, are you “being strong and courageous” or are you running terrified?  Are you entering a new task or running from a terrifying revelation of Jesus’ power?  Whichever you find yourself in today, know that God is with you.  Whether you are attacking a new phase in ministry or life, or fearfully avoiding what God is calling you to, God is with you and will be with you.  And it is His “with-ness” that allows us to carry on. So carry on with God.

Mark names for us three women standing vigil as Jesus died, from a distance watching over the cross.  These were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and Salome.  We know that Jesus’ mother was there from other gospel accounts as well and Mark mentions many other women who had come up with Him to Jerusalem as well.  This gathering of women take the role of Jesus’ caretakers as they had during His life and ministry, literally from the very beginning.

Mary, mother of Jesus: What was it like to raise the Messiah know Him to be the Messiah and what’s more, the Son of God?  What was discipline like, for child-like disobedience isn’t always sin?  What was it to help Jesus through His awkward adolescence?  And then to watch with pride as the crowds followed, and with anger as the elders tried to tear Him down?  What went through her mind as she watched at the cross?  “Blessed are you among women,” the angel had said.  I wonder if Mary doubted that, this woman who’s very name meant, “bitter”.

Mary Magdalene:  When Jesus cast 7 demons out of this Jewish woman, she devoted her life to Him in thanks.  She is mentioned 12 times in the gospels, more than most of the other disciples.  She stands at the cross, and we know she will weep in the garden as she encounters the risen Christ.  Our oversexualized culture will try to make a lover out of her, but that is a cruel twisting for a woman who’s very name meant “bitter” due to her lot in life as a poor girl in a culture ruled by Roman soldiers with wandering eyes and hands.

Mary the mother of James the Lesser and Joseph: With her husband Alphaeus, this Mary supported Jesus during His ministry and gave up her son to be an Apostle.  We know little else, yet this quiet, unobtrusive woman, yet again named “bitter”, was given the place of privilege to bear witness to the end of sin’s power.

Salome:  With a name that means “shalom” or “peace”, Salome is assumed to be the wife of Zebedee and the mother of James and John, the “sons of thunder”.  Salome and Zebedee raised their boys to be fishermen, and then sent them off without a word to follow this new Rabbi who eventually would prove Himself to be the Messiah.  With her request to allow her sons to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand, we find a woman seeking a better life for her boys, and a woman of faith who stuck with Jesus to the end.

Loyal and humble, caretakers and witnesses, “bitter” and “peace”, these woman stand vigil, watching as the disciples couldn’t, and bearing witness to the source of our faith, the death and ultimately the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The blessings pronounced from Mt. Gerizim and the curses pronounced from Mt. Ebal would make a pretty impressive impetus for obedience.  A few chapters ago we hear Moses command the people to divide in half, with 6 tribes standing on the lush and fruitful Mt. Gerizim and pronounce the blessings God has promised for those who are obedient to Him, and 6 tribes standing on bleak and barren Mt. Ebal and pronounce the curses God has promised for those who are disobedient.  The Levites were to stand in the valley between them and shout “Amen!” for each of the blessings and each of the curses:  “So let it be!”

I sometimes think following God would be so much easier if we were to see those blessings shower down upon us when we are obedient and the curses shower down when we are disobedient.  So often I find disobedience in my life unpunished and obedience met with difficulty.  And in those times, I long for the motivation of Gerizim and Ebal.

But in reality, were that to happen, we might live more obediently to God’s law, but we would do so out of selfish ambition or self-preservation, not out of love for God Himself.  We’d obey because it would get us blessed, and we would avoid disobeying because the pain of the curses wouldn’t be worth it.

When my children were young, I knew I could get them to do what I asked with a simple show of force.  “You put your pants back on or it’s a time out in your room!”  But this didn’t teach them the value of what I was trying to teach them, and the obedience seldom lasted long.  Instead, if they saw that I loved them even when I didn’t get them a new toy, and if they saw me comforting them when their bad decisions had caused real pain, or even when their bad decisions didn’t lead to anything bad at all, it was then that they learned obedience.  In the midst of that obedience, love.

I wonder if God thought the same thing.

Good Friday Worship, Mar. 30 @7pm

We gather for a time of reflection on the final days of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Communion, songs and hymns, readings, videos, and prayer will lead us through Jesus’ last day before the Cross.

(Crucifixion – Good Friday ©2013 Lucinda Naylor, Eyekons)

 

Resurrection Sunday Worship, Apr. 1

Join us at 9:15am for a pancake Easter Breakfast downstairs sponsored by our youth as a fundraiser for CHIC this summer.

Then at 10:30am we gather for the ultimate worship celebration of the Christian Year.  Come and sing, praise, pray and wonder as we ponder “What if?”.  All are welcome!